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Survey on Learning Standard American English in Black American Communities.
July 5, 2001 7:11 PM   Subscribe

Survey on Learning Standard American English in Black American Communities. This academic survey is designed to gather attitudes among Black Americans regarding Ebonics, better known to linguists at African American Vernacular English.
posted by Mo Nickels (42 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Please respect the academic, scholarly nature of the survey. Please do not hijack it, lie, fool around, be a smartass, etc.

From the survey's creators:

"Do you believe Ebonics is good or bad for society? Regardless of how you feel, Ebonics is being spoken in many communities, even though it hasn't been the focus of media attention lately.

"We need your help. If we haven't already heard from you, Robert and I have created a Survey on 'Learning Standard English in Black Communities in the United States.' The survey is anonymous and largely multiple choice. [...] The questions from the survey address areas which include: your personal attitudes towards Standard English and Ebonics, the amount of Standard English used in your home, memorable learning experiences in and out of school, and other areas related to how and when you learned Standard English. The feedback from those who have taken the survey thus far said it was a fun walk down memory lane, and they're looking forward to seeing the overall results from the study.

"It is our hope that the information compiled from hundreds of people will enable the education community to improve its teaching materials and teacher education methods for those interested in learning or teaching Standard English, and provide knowledge and insight in understanding the power and language of Ebonics."
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:15 PM on July 5, 2001


[quote]
...better known to linguists at African American Vernacular English.
[/quote]

Uneducated gutter-talk is what I call it. There is no Franco-American Vernacular English for Cajun mush-mouth noises. There is no Nasally and Irritating Northeastern WASP Vernacular English.

Just more PC horseshit.
posted by Spanktacular at 7:26 PM on July 5, 2001


Big time! Promoting this stuff just perpetuates black America's devaluation of education...
posted by owillis at 7:39 PM on July 5, 2001


any linguists here?

I had a very interesting conversation the other night with a linguist who told me that much of the usage in vernacular black english actually goes back to usage in african language. I'm not a linguist, so I can't go into more detail than this, but it seems clear to me that there's more going on here than "sloppy english".

even if that's all it were, I don't see any problem with studying these alternate usages in order to find ways to explain standard usage more effectively. (never mind that english is a living language, and what is labelled sloppy today may be standard tomorrow. this is how language stays vital.)

and I certainly don't see any problem with labelling standard american english as just that. lots of people come from backgrounds that don't use standard american english; insisting that anyone's vernacular, the language that their parents and all the people in their community speak, is "wrong" or "uneducated" or "ignorant", misses the point, and may cause some people to dig in their heels. why not just say "in the classroom, we use standard american english", and leave all value judgements aside?
posted by rebeccablood at 7:59 PM on July 5, 2001


". . . much of the usage in vernacular black english actually goes back to usage in african language."

I'm an American of Russian descent. By this logic, I should make errors in (uh, deviations from) Standard English consistent with Russian grammar.
posted by swerve at 8:07 PM on July 5, 2001


and do you not? I've seen this happen before with people who speak chinese, for example (and have a lot of trouble with plurals).

anyway, it's not a matter of logic, I believe it's a simple matter of usage, or at least that's the way it was explained to me. as I said, I'm not a linguist. I'm hoping there's one here.
posted by rebeccablood at 8:13 PM on July 5, 2001


"Please respect the academic, scholarly nature of the survey. Please do not hijack it, lie, fool around, be a smartass, etc."

well i'm out!
posted by jcterminal at 8:15 PM on July 5, 2001


Uneducated gutter-talk is what I call it. There is no Franco-American Vernacular English for Cajun mush-mouth noises. There is no Nasally and Irritating Northeastern WASP Vernacular English.

Actually, the study of US regional/social dialects goes back to 1889 (when the American Dialect Society was founded), and scholars quite understandably try to identify all variants as dispassionately and descriptively as possible, including, in fact, the dialects of New England WASPs and Louisiana Cajuns.
posted by redfoxtail at 8:40 PM on July 5, 2001 [1 favorite]


I'm only an amateur linguist, but I'll have a go anyway. It's silly to me that the whole ebonics discussion has been so politicized, but it was inevitable I suppose - any subject that touches on race is a political subject in the U.S.

The original event that triggered the whole debate back in '96 was the Oakland school board's push to have Ebonics recognized as a separate language. For most people, this was too much to take, since black vernacular English is obviously a dialect. It's my opinion that the Oakland schools wanted it classified as a separate language as a way to obtain funding - see, you can get federal money for bilingual education programs, but not for bidialecticism.

And, contrary to popular myth, it wasn't about teaching black students that it was perfectly acceptable to speak in this vernacular. The goal was still to teach them standard written English, but to do that effectively, these kids have to learn to switch dialects. And you can't develop a solid bidialectical pedagogy without understanding the student's native dialect. This, from a linguistic standpoint, is where it gets interesting.

Black vernacular has all of the classic characteristics of a creole, or pidginized language. Pidgins develop when you have a large population of people who don't speak the indigenous language, yet have no common language to fall back on, so they come up with their own, rudimentary version of the indigenous tongue, which also exhibits syntactic traces of the speaker's original languages. Colonialism and slavery birthed many pidgins and creoles (a creole is basically a grown up pidgin - the original immigrants would speak a pidgin - their children, a creole). There are decades of linguistic research which show that black vernacular English is internally consistent in surprising ways, the most prominent being usage of certain linguistic "markers" also found in many African languages.

There's a pretty good rundown of some of this stuff here. Sadly, linguistics bores most people to tears, and clever Ebonics jokes usually go over well at a cocktail party, so I think the subtlety of some of these distinctions will continue to be lost. In any event, it looks like a laudable study to me.
posted by varmint at 9:13 PM on July 5, 2001 [1 favorite]


For anyone who's interested, here's a great source for things happening in the linguistics field (apparently, yes, things do happen there). And if anyone gets a chance, I highly recommend reading Mark Halpern's "The End of Linguistics" essay in the July issue (whenever it comes out). The same essay appeared in a recent issue of The American Scholar, and Halpern makes a fantastic argument for reigning in much of the talk that language is a living, breathing, growing, urinating, organic doohickie. He doesn't attempt to dispute the idea, exactly, but rather points out, quite effectively, I think, how many lay-people and even linguists tend to go too far in their support of this notion. A good read.
posted by Bixby23 at 9:42 PM on July 5, 2001 [1 favorite]


Perhaps I've kneejerked a little bit.

But I have intimate experience with Jamaican patois and black american speech (ebonics). Patois in Jamaica seems to have some redeeming value as it is the dialect of the majority of the people, while ebonics is used by a relatively small (and it seems regional) group. That said, neither should be taught in a school setting, they are both english bastardizations that encourage lazy and incorrect speech.
posted by owillis at 9:46 PM on July 5, 2001


owillis, neither is being taught in school, they're being studied so as to be able to more effectively teach standard american english:

"The information from this survey may help educators and linguists find ways to improve the instruction of Standard English for children and adults who are having trouble learning it. As things stand we know much more about teaching English as a foreign language than we do about teaching Standard English to native nonstandard speakers."
posted by rebeccablood at 9:53 PM on July 5, 2001


they are both english bastardizations that encourage lazy and incorrect speech.

It is not "incorrect," merely nonstandard.
posted by kindall at 10:02 PM on July 5, 2001


I highly recommend reading Mark Halpern's "The End of Linguistics" essay in the July issue (whenever it comes out).

In the July issue of what? Don't make me hunt down an old issue of The American Scholar!

There was a big essay by David Foster Wallace (disguised as a review of a new usage guide) in the April issue of Harper's this year which covered a lot of the same territory - stuff about the English usage wars. It's also a great read, if you can stomach lots of footnote wankery.
posted by varmint at 10:02 PM on July 5, 2001


Incidentally, I am a member and webmaster for the American Dialect Society, mentioned above by someone else. Drop by and get educated, owillis and spanktacular.
posted by Mo Nickels at 10:07 PM on July 5, 2001 [1 favorite]


oh never mind - I see it's in the July issue of Vocabula.

Too much coffee too late at night.
posted by varmint at 10:08 PM on July 5, 2001


I say "incorrect" because (American) people are surrounded by media (tv, radio) where the majority of dialect spoken is "standard english" but they still choose to speak in a broken form ("ebonics"). Watch any "black" sitcom (on your local UPN affiliate) and you'll see blacks speaking quite clearly for the most part, or look at shows that have been popular among blacks (Good Times, The Jeffersons, Cosby) - the majority of these characters don't speak in ebonics, yet are understood perfectly well. I've seen many (black) people speak perfectly fine english when pushed to, so it seems to my eyes to treat this as some sort of "disability" is a bit of a cop-out.

There's also the social stigma of "talking white" aka "speaking properly" (which I've often been accused of - heaven forbid!) and is the most asinine thing since... well, a lot. Tie that into some other silly notions and you've got the "Total Victim Mentality" package - which doesn't help anybody.
posted by owillis at 11:22 PM on July 5, 2001


This (the legitimacy of dialect versus Standard English) is one of the fundamental issues in British culture, even today - the diversity of dialects and accents in this country and the class signifiers attached to them.

A lot of the dabate revolves around the notion of a "standard" English, particularly in relation to the BBC, who have been seen as the custodians of Standard Pronounciation. "Standard English" has been used in the past as a tool for maintaining a class hegemony (in much the same way that IQ tests were employed). On the other hand in a country of diverse accents it's very useful that a national radio announcer speaks in a way that everyone can understand. I don't believe that this is inherently classist - Standard or Received Pronounciation revolves mainly around enunciating clearly and systematically.

For the record, really posh people are the least easy-to-understand speakers on the radio. Then Glaswegians. (That's just my opinion, by the way, not scientifically tested).
posted by Grangousier at 12:17 AM on July 6, 2001


Ya daft Blether'll get your heid in yer hands and yer teeth tae play wi', ya daft bahookie!

Me ma's a Glaswegian.
posted by dong_resin at 1:23 AM on July 6, 2001


Well, then. I stand corrected.
posted by Spanktacular at 4:03 AM on July 6, 2001


This is mostly directed at owillis:

Please do a little reading: AAVE, the Gullah islands and its dialect, hell, the entire English(creole)-speaking population of the Caribbean. There isn't much to say here.

...while ebonics is used by a relatively small (and it seems regional) group.

You're just way off the mark here. 'Ebonics' isn't really used by anybody, it's a silly name some Oakland educators used so they could milk some extra dollars from the federal education budget. AAVE is regional in the sense that African Americans from different parts of the country all speak differently (and some of them don't even speak AAVE), but to say that the group of AAVE-speakers is small (in relation to the entire population of African Americans) or located in only one area is just plain wrong.

If anybody's really interested in current linguistics research, you should head to Linguistlist. Vocabula is interesting, but is really more concerned with grammar conservatism and literature than linguistics.
posted by andrewjf at 4:27 AM on July 6, 2001


Dis be a fashionated dicussion here.
posted by darren at 5:30 AM on July 6, 2001


I wish people would explore their dogmatic statements.

What makes "standard" English BETTER than a dialect? Are you really arguing that we should all follow some norm just because it IS the norm?

Language is a tool for communicating ideas & feelings. I agree that it would be silly to speak in your own personal dialect that only YOU understand. But scores of people speak African-American English. So it's obviously a useful tool for communicating ideas & feelings.

In addition to this, it's beautiful. Language can have its own beauty and esthetics. Some of which is the way the words are put together to create meaningful, memorable & clear descriptions, metaphors and sounds. But there's a more basic beauty that has to do with the structure -- the grammar or syntax -- of the language.

African-American dialect IS grammatically correct (though as with "white" English, an individual speaker may make errors). It just has a different grammar from standard English -- just as Spanish has a different grammar from Chinese. And a different vocabulary. (Is cat a better word than gato?)

Do all you defenders-of-the-faith get ready to hurl stones when you hear the cockney dialect? Or is it just Black English that offends you? (“See Charlie over there? He don’t know nothing.” Is that more offensive when spoken with a rough ghetto accent than with a charming What’s-It-All-About-Alphie accent?)

Which isn't to say you're racist. That's boring and probably untrue. I doubt you hate black people. You probably are just being overprotective of your "educated" clan rituals and values. You paid a LOT of money to get your education, so it would be pretty unfair if edu-speak was of equal value with something you can learn for free, on the street.

But education is much better at teaching you to DESCRIBE language -- which evolves naturally -- than in laying down the law. And moaning about change is a waste of time, anyway. It’s like complaining that homosapians are so crude compared to cromagnums. Evolution happens. Get over it.

Instead, why don’t you spend your time urging speakers of ANY dialect to speak clearly WITHIN that dialect? Avoid cliches, mixed-metaphors and pompous speech. Use words to create sharp pictures in the mind and strong feelings in the heart.
posted by grumblebee at 6:21 AM on July 6, 2001


Cromagnums: for those prehistoric people who don't want to waste their time with a wussy 12 oz beer.
posted by CRS at 6:48 AM on July 6, 2001


~
posted by clavdivs at 6:53 AM on July 6, 2001


What makes "standard" English BETTER than a dialect?
Um, because without some kind of ground rules to agree on, meaningful communication between the speakers of two different dialects eventually becomes impossible?

Assuming that communication is the point, of course. If we're just going to stroke each other's egos and congratulate each other on being beautiful and unique snowflakes like you suggest we should, then I guess we can say anything we want to.
posted by darukaru at 7:21 AM on July 6, 2001


What gets my goat is the repressive bigotry I hear from people from the North against the wide range of southern dialects. My wife even tells me that when she hears a southern dialect she immediately assumes that the speaker is stupid. This is very irritating. A wide range of dialects are a good thing; they make life interesting. When I hear a southern accent I smile.
posted by norm at 7:41 AM on July 6, 2001


My wife even tells me that when she hears a southern dialect she immediately assumes that the speaker is stupid.

This can be used to one's advantage; all I have to do to get many people to talk slower and more clearly (especially when dealing with impatient Tech Support) is dial up my normally mild Mississippi accent.
posted by harmful at 7:57 AM on July 6, 2001


What makes "standard" English BETTER than a dialect? Are you really arguing that we should all follow some norm just because it IS the norm?

The fact that it's a standard. Your browser can read this web page, because it's in HTML. If the page were in ebono-HTML, or Yiddish, or Mauritian creole, your browser wouldn't interpret it. Languages are very helpful in getting information from person A to person B, but only if they've agreed on a common language to speak.

People who wholeheartedly adopt any marginalized language shouldn't be too surprised when the (standard-language-speaking) majority leaves them behind.
posted by websavvy at 8:48 AM on July 6, 2001


From the survey.

Some people think of Ebonics as bad grammar or bad English. Language scientists from the Linguistic Society of America () and the Center for Applied Linguistics () however, point out that Ebonics is only "bad grammar" when the speaker is trying to speak or write Standard English. Ebonics uses a different but not inferior or "bad" grammar, which is perfectly adequate for communication in the speakers' home community. It is for this reason that Ebonics has persisted for hundreds of years in this country.
posted by Avogadro at 9:30 AM on July 6, 2001


Are you really arguing that we should all follow some norm just because it IS the norm?

Well, yes, I'll certainly argue that. It's a great practical advantage to be able to speak whatever dialect is spoken by the larger community, and it's also very useful that there should be a standard dialect to learn, making communication easier between native speakers of different dialects. Thus, I'd say that any English speaker in America should learn Standard American English. It would also be a good idea to try to pick up the dialect of the region where you live, even if it's not your native dialect.

That said, though: there are many Americans who speak Standard American English, or something very like it, as their native dialect. These people have a distinct advantage over those who've grown up speaking different dialects, and when they act as though non-native-speakers are just too stupid or lazy to speak Standard American English, they're being assholes and demonstrating nothing but their own ignorance.
posted by moss at 9:46 AM on July 6, 2001


to say that the group of AAVE-speakers is small
I was saying its small among Americans, not black in general.

I still can't see a good reason to give it legitimacy, to do so makes people feel that it is perfectly acceptable in the modern world - which it shouldn't be. It's not the same as a regional accent, it's intenionally slurred and inaccurate speech...

"I fidna go to da stow" is just wrong.
posted by owillis at 10:03 AM on July 6, 2001


Maybe it's just the region I grew up in, but I had always assumed this stuff was an affectation people used to try to identify themselves as part of the black community. (much like when gay guys intentionally adopt a lisp. why would homosexuals be more likely to have speech impediments? :) )

I know black kids (well, not kids anymore) that grew up practically next door to each other. One talks a lot of slang and slurs his speech alot, the other talks standard english (right term?)

One is faking it, no?
posted by sonofsamiam at 10:14 AM on July 6, 2001


It's not the same as a regional accent, it's intenionally slurred and inaccurate speech...

What you think of as AAVE and what linguists think of as AAVE are, apparently, two different things. AAVE in linguist-land is a dialect with its own grammar rules that are followed by speakers of the dialect just as much as SAE speakers follow the "standard" rules. They aren't talking about accent, or slurring, or anything of the sort.

It's OK to say that one language/dialect or another is better for communication in a certain setting, but to say that gives one dialect inherent "betterness" over another is pretty silly. I agree that we need a standard to be followed for newscasts, job interviews, and the like, but that doesn't mean everyone must speak SAE all the time. And, by the by, SAE is the standard because it's the dialect of the people with the most power in this country, generally speaking - not because it sounds nicer or is somehow better.

I think it was rcb who mentioned that AAVE rules have roots in African languages - this is what I've heard too, and it has to do with the pidgin languages that arose on plantations when African slaves couldn't speak each others' languages (this was intentional - if they can't communicate, they can't revolt). I'm a little sketchy on full details, though.
posted by binkin at 10:17 AM on July 6, 2001


One is faking it, no?

Not faking it exactly - he's bidialectical, and he has chosen the dialect he wants to use in most situations, depending on the social context. And when you're talking about black vernacular English, this is where all the thorny political issues come out - on one side, there are misguided members of the black community who stigmatize kids who speak "too white" (mentioned earlier by owillis); and, on the other side, people like my sister who get all bent out of shape when they hear white teenagers who are "trying to sound black"
posted by varmint at 10:30 AM on July 6, 2001


I think it was rcb who mentioned that AAVE rules have roots in African languages - this is what I've heard too,

That's a very nice historical footnote, but we are talking today of people who did not grow up as slaves on plantations, who were born in America not Africa, and thus presumably were educated in standard English, yet for whatever reason don't speak it or didn't learn it. I totally understand for someone actually from Africa, who natively speaks an African language, to have an accent and odd bits of grammar when trying to speak English. (Same for someone from any other country.) But what am I to think of someone who ought to be natively speaking English but doesn't/can't? I was thinking about this a bit the other night when a couple NBA players were being interviewed on Nightline and their grammar was so poor. Seemed to me a clear case for why they should be going to college and not drafted right out of high school.

Regional dialects and slang are fine, as long as the speaker knows when and how to turn them off. (A good example - whether she makes you cringe or not - is Oprah Winfrey. She speaks perfect American English most of the time, but when she wants to she can turn on a bit of AAVE to make a point to "the sistahs." )
posted by dnash at 1:27 PM on July 6, 2001


But what am I to think of someone who ought to be natively speaking English but doesn't/can't?

They are speaking English, just not your English. I agree that when people want to make a good impression on a certain group of people, they should use that group's standard dialect, but AAVE is English just as surely as SAE is.
posted by binkin at 1:42 PM on July 6, 2001


and again, the point of this survey is to find better methods to teach ASE to those who natively speak AAVE.
posted by rebeccablood at 2:03 PM on July 6, 2001


"This is the new heresy:
but if you do not even understand what words say,

how can you expect to pass judgement
on what words conceal?"

-H.D. "The Walls do not Fall"
or

"Try and read between the lines
I cant imagine why you would't welcome any change my
friend"

-Tool. "Aenema"
posted by clavdivs at 2:09 PM on July 6, 2001


Malcolm X said it in his autobiography when he noted that he could speak the language of the streets when he was speaking to folks on street corners and that he could speak the language of Harvard professors when he was talking to an educated white audience.
Nothing wrong with use of what isw native, home-like, part of a heritage. But if you want to play ball with the mainstream, professionals, where the money is, then you should know the ways and speech and cultrual habits of that large group. Language, like other things, lets one know know your class, background, education etc, and as in all matters of "class" you are judged In or Out by these markers.
posted by Postroad at 5:43 AM on July 7, 2001


...presumably were educated in standard English, yet for whatever reason don't speak it or didn't learn it.

Much of my family speaks Spanish in the home and learned English in school and outside the home. Since Spanish was first and primary to them, it is natural (and not "wrong") that they use that language primarily.

Now let's say that my family grew up in a poor, predominately Latino community. The chance of their English being standard would be significantly lower because they would have less opportunity to learn standard English: their schools would be substandard, and outside of the home, they would mostly hear Spanish.

There are some that choose to use dialects, languages as identifiers (example: my family, the african-american boy who grew up in a middle class, white neighborhood)....but most their language/dialect because it is how they think and communicate, and they can't do so well enough in another language/dialect.

We need to fund poorer schools so that we can teach such children how to be bilingual/bidialectal.
posted by jennak at 6:20 AM on July 7, 2001


The alternating between SAE and AAVE (or Spanish or Cajun or even just hip-hop slang) is called code switching.
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:38 AM on July 7, 2001


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